Like most crops, the production of tea is fairly complex. Here we give a brief summary of how different teas are produced around the world.
All ‘proper’ tea (i.e. not fruit or herbal) comes from one variety of plant, the 'Camellia Sinensis', of which there are two variations; the ‘Camellia Sinensis Sinensis’ which grows well in colder climates and the ‘Camellia Sinensis Assamica’ which fares well in more humid conditions.
A bit like wine, the different properties and flavours of the final tea product are determined by the various regions in which tea is grown and the way in which it is processed – from plucking to drying. Indeed, it is the processing that ultimately leads to the various classifications of tea; black, green, oolong and white.
Although the various classifications of tea normally indicate something about its appearance and character, the classifications themselves are determined by the way the tea is processed.
White tea is the most rare type of tea and is named after the tiny white or silver hairs on the tea bud as it develops at the tip of the shoot. Once the new buds have been plucked, they are dried in the fresh air.
Originally the preserve of the Fujian province in China, white tea is now produced in other parts of the world using different tea plants. In addition, although the finest white teas are made only from the new leaf bud (plucked early in the morning before they unfurl) other white teas are made from the new bud and two young open leaves, or just simply the young open leaves, meaning not all white teas look the same.
When brewed, white tea should produce a very pale liquor with a light, sweet flavour. Due to the lack of processing, the antioxidant levels are said to be highest of all in white tea.
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Green tea is often referred to as unoxidised because it is heated after picking to kill the enzymes that cause oxidisation. The leaves are either pan-fired or steamed, then rolled to shape and dry the leaf, sealing its green colour. Steamed green teas tend to have a more delicate taste than the roasted version.
Matcha green tea is made by grinding down Tencha, a finely chopped Japanese green tea, whose bushes are shaded and then its slightly larger leaves are harvested, steamed, dried but not rolled. Instead the veins and stems of the leaf are removed and the remaining parts are ground down.
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Oolong tea is often considered a cross between black and green tea in that it is part-fermented and exhibits the flavour of green tea yet the strength of black tea. Traditionally produced in China and Taiwan there are two different styles of Oolong tea – darker open-leafed oolongs and greener balled oolongs – which are oxidised to different levels using different methods.
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Generally stronger than the other classifications of tea, black teas are more oxidised than the others. Once plucked, the leaves are dried, rolled, oxidised and then fired in an oven.
There are two types of processing for black teas – larger, whole leaf ‘orthodox’ processing and ‘CTC’ processing which stands for ‘cut, tear and curl’. Developed in the 1950s with the advent of the teabag, the latter uses a machine to literally cut, tear and curl the tea to produce small leaf tea that produces a quicker, stronger brew.
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